conjunctions of time and space

I was in Edinburgh recently, where I watched a fascinating, if overlong, television documentary on the life and work of David Hockney. The location of such viewing would normally be unimportant, but I mention it because the following day (i.e. yesterday), I went to an display of Roy Lichtenstein’s later work in the Artists Rooms strand at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

While I was growing up in Edinburgh, I would frequent the gallery in the Royal Botanic Gardens now known as Inverleith House which is where I first encountered many of the works now on permanent display in the Gallery of Modern Art. My visit yesterday felt like a chance encounter with familiar faces or past loves from long ago (literally in the case of some portraits), and the realisation of recognition, like Nicholas Jenkins encountering Jean Duport in an art gallery in the final volume of ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, was an overwhelming wave of memory like Proust’s famous taste of madeleine cakes described in ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’.

But that was’t the only connection occurring across time. Lichtenstein was developing his iconic and distinctive style at the time Hockney was painting in California, and the latter’s ‘Rocky Mountains with Tired Indians‘ was on display yesterday. The documentary had discussed Hockney’s efforts and explorations to depict water, so it was interesting that the exhibition explicitly covered Lichtenstein’s explorations to depict reflections on glass. In both cases it was important for the artist to consider the role of the light effects on the finished work, distorting or obscuring what lay behind. Some of Lichtenstein’s reflections were highly stylised bands using large versions of the brightly coloured Benday dots of his trademark style, which contrasted with his use, in ‘In The Car‘, of relatively simple lines to indicate glass and possibly movement. The faces in that painting were also very familiar to me because, as a student, I had a large poster of it which I bought in The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow. That poster dominated every flat I rented for many years and I would ponder it for hours.

In a more distant personal connection, the exhibition also contains a flattened but solid explosion like the one in ‘WHAAM‘. That painting was my first encounter with Lichtenstein’s work and it quickly became a favourite. It was my introduction to Pop Art long before I encountered Warhol’s soup cans or Monroe prints. The solid explosion in the exhibition, appropriately high up on the wall like the jet fighter being destroyed mid air by a missile, has at least three flat layers arranged to give it a remarkable appearance of volume.

But that wasn’t the only reference in the exhibition to earlier art works . One was a direct development of  Lichtenstein’s ‘Art’, with the word alone inside a border and half-hidden by ‘reflections’ on glass, while another, of a yelling baby, referred to Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream‘ which I saw in the same gallery a couple of years ago. Stylised lilies floating on polished metal referred to Monet’s series of lily paintings. I was unaware of Lichtenstein’s nudes painted in the 1990s in his trademark style, but I like them a lot because they unexpectedly tap into the rich tradition of the human form in art.

This morning, being on good time for my train south, I called into The City Art Centre near Waverley Station but the current exhibition was temporarily closed so I had a coffee in the gallery’s cafe where they were playing my personal favourite ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra over the sound system. That piece always makes me smile.

Afterwards  I went to The Fruitmarket Gallery across the road where there was an exhibition of Brazilian sculpture  called ‘Possibilities of the Object.’ I found it all very obscure, and indeed the accompanying leaflet tellingly described one work as, “…neither painting nor sculpture, but an object that resists immediate comprehension.” Another work there, however, at least had some meaning for me. It was an open attache case with rows of nails filling one half and pointing straight up, rendering the case unusable, and hinting darkly at the nastier side of business . This seemed a direct reference to Man Ray’s ‘Gift‘, an iron with nails soldered perpendicular to the otherwise flat base plate. That famously unusable iron was my personal introduction to Surrealism, so seeing it referenced in an exhibition that I had only chanced to visit, seemed like another happy conjunction across time and space.

And the moral of this long, rambling story is that interesting documentaries on television are all very well, but it’s still important to get out the door and let them inform and expand a personal encounter with art in galleries.

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Monday, March 16th, 2015 art

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